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An Indonesian Childhood in Chains

Shackling Persists Despite Government Eradication Efforts

Childhood should be a time of innocence, play, and learning. But 15-year-old Subekti spent his shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, a city about a three-hour drive from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.


Fifteen-year-old Subekti spent his childhood shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, Indonesia. Private

For the past six years, since he was 9, Subekti has had both his ankles tightly chained to the floor, just meters away from where his parents sleep. Unable to walk or move around, Subekti’s muscles have atrophied, leaving skeletal legs.

A neighbor alerted the media last week to draw attention to Subekti’s plight. When members of the nongovernmental National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak) visited, he reportedly begged them, “free me.”

His family told Komnas Anak that they shackled him to prevent him from disturbing the community. Subekti comes from a poor family where there is little awareness of mental health conditions. His parents believe he has a spiritual problem and consulted a faith healer but without success.

Subekti’s story is horrifying but not uncommon. More than 57,000 people in Indonesia with real or perceived mental health conditions have been subjected to pasung – shackled or locked up in confined space – at least once in their lives. Despite a 1977 government ban, the practice continues, fueled by the mistaken belief that mental health conditions are the result of possession by evil spirits, having sinned, or immoral behavior.

When Human Rights Watch researched the situation of people in pasung in Indonesia, families told us they felt they had little choice but to resort to shackling because they struggled to cope in the absence of government support and community mental health services.

Despite the media attention, eight days later, Subekti remains in chains. His house is only about a kilometer from the local government office, but authorities have not successfully convinced his parents to release him. He is now receiving mental health medication at home from a community health center.

In addition to providing him with counseling and other mental health services, the local social affairs office needs to ensure Subekti’s release. Local authorities should provide his family with the necessary support so that Subekti can live a normal childhood in the community.

While Human Rights Watch has documented Indonesian’s efforts to eliminate pasung, cases like Subekti’s remind us there is much work to be done to ensure no one lives a life in chains.  

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